Eric Kuhn prepared for his final Colorado River District Seminar, “Points of No Return,” by riding his bike east to west across the Colorado National Monument the day before. He has announced his retirement from the district and I’m sure he’ll make good use of the time on his road bike, mountain bike, and kayak. He undoubtedly has outdoor interests that I don’t know about. He will be missed by those of us that have learned to listen to his wise counsel about the hardest working river in the world, the Colorado River.
He assured folks in the room, on Twitter and live on Facebook that the seminar was not his last, just his last as the GM of the district he worked at for 34 years. In his early retirement he is authoring a book on Colorado River hydrology that he hopes will “de-nerdify” the subject and appeal to a wide audience. The water nerds in the room all hoped to snag a copy as soon as is it avaiable.
He explained the politics and history of the River. “100 years ago the Colorado River was a beast,” he said, adding, “and we were in a wet time but already seeing shortages.” The beast would unleash huge floods in the Lower Basin, submerging towns and farms and destroying headworks and other facilities. Late in the irrigation season the river often failed to deliver water to finish crops.
Coloradans, led by Delph Carpenter, realized the danger to development of water in Colorado if prior appropriation prevailed on the Colorado River. The Lower Basin states of Arizona and California were first in time and the Upper Basin states were at risk of not being able to develop the farms, cities, and industry at a fast enough pace. The result was the Colorado River Compact which allocated water equally to the Upper Basin and Lower Basin based on the hydrology at Lee Ferry.
The Lower Basin needed storage to manage the river and the Upper Basin needed time. Boulder (now Hoover) Dam, and Lake Mead would fulfill the need for flood control, hydropower, and late-season irrigation water. Lake Powell was slated to store the Upper Basin water for downstream deliveries.
A hundred years later:
During his talk Eric stated that the West Slope, “Should not support and more transmountain diversions,” because that would put, “plans at risk.”
While not being a “not one more drop” line in the sand it still is a pretty strong statement. Kuhn cited protection of West Slope agriculture, the power pool at Lake Powell, and the Upper Basin delivery requirements under the “Law of the River,” the recreation industry, water quality, and the environment, as reasons.
“River governance must be as flexible to meet a wide range of future possibilities”, he said.
He believes that we need to reduce consumptive use on the river. He added that, the Lower Basin will have to make the lion’s share and they are doing that. Then he backed it up with the numbers:
Mr. Kuhn said that, “If we had a 1950s drought we would probably drain Lake Powell.”
Eric was preceded on the program Bill Hasencamp from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He said that 1 in 17 Americans get their water from the district (and their members), 19 million folks all told.
“I am from the Lower Basin and we’re about as different as can be,” he said,
Metropolitan’s water supplies come from the Colorado River, Northern California, and locally through conservation and reuse:
California has an active water market, he said, but there is great variability in price:
Demand for water is low this year due to huge winter snowpack:
“The Salton Sea will a dramatic effect on how water is managed going forward,” said Hasencamp. The water body, formed when the Colorado River destroyed an irrigation headworks during construction and has become important habitat for birds displaced by San Diego’s growth. Now it is drying up due to the lack of irrigation return flows and has become a health hazard for residents nearby.
Hasencamp stressed the importance of solving California’s Bay Delta problem. The proposed project will cost $17 billion and firm up the water supply from Northern California:
Hasencamp closed by quoting Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”
Dave Kanzer from the Colorado River District moderated a panel about irrigation efficiency. The goal is to avoid unexpected consequences such as increased salinity or less water in the streams due to lower return flows.
Panel member Bill Trampe said that society has to tell irrigators what is required. The return flows from irrigation provide habitat for wildlife and after a 150 years or so that habitat is part of the fabric of the watershed. Absent direction from society ranchers and farmers will go where the money is because the business is very tough.
There was a long session about challenges and successes in Grand County with Lurline Curran, Paul Bruchez, and Mely Whiting. The county at the headwaters of the Colorado River sees 60% of its water exported to the East Slope by Denver Water and Northern Water. The two water agencies are working on projects to firm up supplies and the result could be that more headwaters flows could move east.
One project will rebuild the channel of the Fraser River to better fit the lower flows to keep river temperatures colder. Rocks are being placed to create pools for trout.
Another project, in concert with Northern’s Windy Gap Firming project will create a new natural channel around the reservoir to take it off-channel. The hope is that there will be greater scouring of the Colorado River below the reservoir to support stonefly populations that have been severely impacted.
At lunch Jack Schmidt explained his research into the Glen Canyon Institute’s proposal to drain Lake Powell to dead pool and store the water in Lake Mead. He said that their numbers with respect to evaporation and seepage may not be supported by the studies he has found. He confirmed that under a changed hydrology due to climate change that the option of re-drilling the original bypass tunnels around Glen Canyon Dam to completely drain Lake Powell might work to restore the Grand Canyon.
Afternoon sessions included a panel with Heather Hansman and Eric Kuhn with their thoughts on telling water stories and concluded with a panel of members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and its new Director, Becky Mitchell.
The Colorado River District staff knocked it out of the park again this year. Thanks again.
Take a trip through the Tweets from the conference. The hash tag was #CRDseminar. Be sure to click on the “Latest” button at the top of the page, scroll down to the bottom and read upward from oldest to newest Tweets.
Here’s an in-depth report about decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam from Krista Langlois writing for The High Country News. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
For wilderness lovers, the 710-foot-tall concrete wall stuck out of the Colorado River like a middle finger — an insult that helped ignite the modern environmental movement. In 1981, the radical group Earth First! faked a “crack” on the dam by unfurling a 300-foot-long black banner down the structure’s front. The Sierra Club’s first executive director, David Brower, considered the dam’s construction a personal failure and spent the rest of his life advocating for its removal. And in his iconic novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, author Edward Abbey imagined a group of friends secretly plotting to blow up the dam and free the Colorado River.
In real life, though, Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell made it possible for millions of people to live and grow food in the arid Southwest. Together, the dam and the reservoir store precious snowmelt for year-round use, help generate electricity for 5.8 million homes, and enable states from the Upper Colorado River Basin to fulfill their legal obligation to deliver water to downstream states. Last year, the federal government underscored its support for the dam by finalizing a plan that will guide management for the next two decades.
Even so, an unprecedented interest in dam removals and the specter of climate change have created fresh hope for those who want to see the drowned canyon resurrected. From 1990 to 2010, the population of the American Southwest grew by 37 percent, even as the amount of water flowing into the Colorado River system shrank amid a historic drought. More people using fewer resources means that neither Lake Powell nor Lake Mead, the downstream reservoir created by Hoover Dam, have been full since 1999. And climate change promises to squeeze the water supply even further, with future droughts expected to bring even hotter and drier conditions.
Meanwhile, Lake Powell may be squandering the very resource it was designed to protect. Every day, water slowly seeps into the soft, porous sandstone beneath the reservoir and evaporates off its surface into the desert air. When more water flowed in the system, this hardly mattered. But in an era where “every drop counts,” says Eric Balken, executive director of the nonprofit Glen Canyon Institute, it calls for a drastic re-evaluation of the Colorado River’s plumbing. “The Colorado River can no longer sustain two huge reservoirs,” Balken says. “There isn’t enough water.”
That’s one reason the Glen Canyon Institute is pushing an audacious proposal called “Fill Mead First,” which calls for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to drain Lake Powell and send the water downstream to Lake Mead. In theory, combining two reservoirs into one would shrink their surface area, reducing the amount of water that’s lost to evaporation. It would also mitigate seepage, since Lake Mead is surrounded by hard volcanic rock rather than sandstone. The Colorado River would run freely through Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon, but Glen Canyon Dam would stay in place to store water if cooler, wetter conditions return — a compromise of sorts.
Not long ago, the idea of breaching Glen Canyon Dam was laughably unrealistic. Since 1999, though, more than 850 dams have been removed from U.S. rivers, and ecological restorations that once seemed pie-in-the-sky are looking increasingly probable. There’s just one problem: The science behind Fill Mead First is as muddy as the Colorado River itself.
Glen Canyon Dam. Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.
Cavitation at the Glen Canyon Dam via Flow Science.
The generator building of Glen Canyon hydro power plant in Arizona via Wikimedia.
How much electricity the turbines in the bowels of Glen Canyon Dam can generate depends upon how much water is delivered from the Wind River Range of Wyoming and the high mountains of Colorado into Lake Powell. Photo/Bureau of Reclamation.
The Colorado River wends its way through southern Utah and, at Glen Canyon, is impounded into Lake Powell. Photo/Allen Best
Glen Canyon Dam photo credit Greg Hobbs.
Glen Canyon Dam releases. Photo via Twitter and Reclamation
A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam — Photo USBR
Glen Canyon Dam June 2013 — Photo / Brad Udall
November 2012 High Flow Experiment via Protect the Flows
Glen Canyon Dam discharge via Tom Smart
Glen Canyon Dam back in the day when the reservoir was nearly full
Glen Canyon Dabm Construction
Glen Canyon Dam Construction
Glen Canyon Dam construction circa. 1961 via @USBR.
PINEDALE, WYO. – When Freddie Botur, 45, whose ranch spans 72,000 acres outside of Pinedale, Wyoming, first heard about a program that was paying ranchers to let water run down the river instead of irrigating with it, he was skeptical. But Nick Walrath, a project coordinator for Trout Unlimited, told him he’d receive about $200 for every acre-foot of water saved by not watering hay on his Cottonwood Ranch.
For Botur, it would mean over $240,000 for fallowing just over 1,700 acres of hay fields for the latter half of the summer of 2015, letting 1,202 acre-feet of water run past his headgate on Cottonwood and Muddy Creeks, tributaries of the Green River, instead of to his fields.
“Oh my god,” he thought, “this is insane.”
Botur, talkative and athletic, was wearing mirrored sunglasses and a cowboy hat when we met in June outside a cluster of old homestead buildings on the family ranch that he operates at the foot of the lofty peaks of the Wyoming Range. For Wyoming ranchers, he explained, the kind of money he received for not growing hay represented as much as a third of their annual revenue.
The money-for-water program that Botur signed up for was a pilot program, launched in 2014 by the four largest municipal water providers in the Colorado River basin along with the Bureau of Reclamation. The goal: see how complicated it would be to pay ranchers to use less water on their fields and instead let the water flow down the Green, Colorado, and San Juan rivers to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two biggest water storage buckets in the Colorado River system.
The result: After three years, the initiative, known as the “System Conservation Pilot Program,” proved popular with skeptical ranchers like Botur, but water officials called a halt to the program after this year until they work out some big challenges. Their task will not be easy.
But as climate change alters the hydrology of the Colorado River basin, water planners are searching for ways to adapt a system of century-old water laws to a new reality. If they’re successful, a revamped “system conservation program” could be one way to reshape water management for a hotter, drier West.
The year 2014 marked a new level of urgency for water managers along the Colorado River. In July, Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, dipped to its lowest level since it was filled in 1937. Upstream, Lake Powell was also in bad shape.
Since 2000, a long-term drought had gripped much of the Colorado River Basin and the storage pool of both reservoirs had shrunk to less than half their capacity. For the first time, federal authorities decreased the amount of water that flows into Lake Mead from Lake Powell. And officials from the Bureau of Reclamation said there was a 50-50 chance that by 2015 Lake Mead’s water will be rationed to states downstream.
That, too, had never happened before.
Most alarming, however, were the climate models suggesting that the drought was a harbinger of a future marked by rising temperatures — a future in which city water providers could not depend on what’s left in the Colorado River to meet demands.
For water officials in the Upper Colorado Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico — the ongoing drought posed an additional threat. If they failed to deliver the mandatory volume of water from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, as required by the law, the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California could make a “compact call” for their water, forcing the upper basin to stop diverting post-1922 water rights from the Colorado River.
“The cutbacks would go very deep,” says Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
In Colorado, for instance, the transmountain diversions that pipe water from the western side of the Rockies to the drier eastern side could be limited or stopped altogether. If that happened, Front Range cities —where more than 4 million people live —could lose up to 50 percent of their water supply.
And yet, water officials had barely discussed how such a scenario might be avoided.
If both Lake Mead and Lake Powell dropped significantly and Upper Basin states faced a compact call on the river, officials had few options to keep it at bay, said James Eklund, the former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who is now an attorney with Squire Patton Boggs in Denver. As the drought worsened, officials came to an uncomfortable conclusion, said Eklund: “If it gets really bad, we had no plan.”
The beginning of a crisis
When the first inkling of future water shortages emerged during the 2002 drought, Eklund, who serves on the Upper Colorado River Commission, and other water planners in the Upper Basin, asked the Bureau of Reclamation to model the reservoir levels in Mead and Powell using drier hydrology. The results confirmed what many already knew: They needed to plan for a lot less water in the Colorado River.
A few ideas emerged.
They could release water from Upper Basin reservoirs to keep Mead and Powell full. They could keep cloud seeding, which may help a bit. And they could keep removing the tamarisk from the banks of the Colorado and Green rivers, and that also may help a little. Still, Eklund, said, it felt like they were “just nibbling” at the problem.
Eklund, a fifth generation Coloradan whose parents operate a ranch near Grand Junction, grew worried. If Lake Powell dropped to so-called “dead pool” levels, the turbines that generate electricity through the Hoover Dam would stop spinning. Without that power, millions of people across the Southwest would see their electric bills skyrocket and the hydro revenue that now pays for environmental programs along the Colorado River like salinity control and fish recovery programs would disappear.
In the Lower Basin too, water managers were growing more and more alarmed at the severity of the drought. The year 2002 showed them how fast reservoirs could shrink, said John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which delivers water to Las Vegas and its surrounding urban areas. “That was the wakeup call,” he said.
Using the water
Both cities and ranchers in the seven states served by the Colorado River have grown increasingly dependent on the river over the last century, even as the amount of water in the system is falling. That scarcity has created a complex, often fraught relationship between municipal water providers and irrigators, with cities often buying ranches for their water rights, a practice known as “buy and dry.” They do so from willing sellers, but the remaining ranchers don’t see a benefit and the permanent removal of water from land in a community can bring unwanted change.
A similarly tense relationship exists between officials in the lower basin and ranchers in the upper basin. Fears of Southern California or Las Vegas taking someone’s water are culturally ingrained in ranching communities in Colorado and Wyoming. And in Colorado, a longstanding feud exists between the rural western side of the Rocky Mountains, which has most of the state’s water, and the Front Range, where the majority of the people live.
But the severity of the ongoing dry spell has helped drive a new spirit of collaboration among the Colorado River’s competing factions. Over the years, water officials, environmentalists, and irrigators began meeting in conferences, on river trips, in hotel bars and coffee shops, choosing negotiation and trust over potential court battles — in the hopes of avoiding a potential “compact call.”
Seeding an idea
One such meeting occurred over a dinner that Eklund hosted for water managers from the basin states and officials from the Bureau of Reclamation and the Interior Department at Denver’s posh Palace Arms restaurant. On the agenda: negotiating Minute 319, a bi-national water-sharing agreement with Mexico, and ways to coordinate drought contingency plans among the upper and lower basin.
“It was one of those key moments where we could have gone off and done our own thing,” Eklund said. “But there was so much more that we could get out of it if we did things together.”
In the Lower Basin, cities like Las Vegas had invested millions in water efficiency efforts like paying homeowners to get rid of their lawns, imposing strict water restrictions on golf courses, and reusing almost all wastewater. But Lake Mead continued to shrink and Entsminger, whose Las Vegas service area derives 90 percent of its drinking water from the reservoir, grew increasingly worried.
San Diego and Los Angeles had been paying farmers in the Palo Verde and Imperial Valley to lease their water on a temporary basis for years – a program that helped meet urban needs without drying up farms. If that strategy could work for California, Entsminger thought, it could also work for other parts of the Colorado River Basin.
The seeds of that idea emerged one day in 2013 during a brainstorming session in Hermosa Beach, California, with Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Chuck Cullom, manager of Colorado River programs for the Central Arizona Project, and Jim Lochhead, the CEO of Denver Water. Together, they came up with what would become the System Conservation Pilot Program, which they hoped would strike a balance between their need to avoid a catastrophic water shortage and farmers’ reticence toward selling off their water rights.
Entsminger and the other municipal water managers brought the idea to officials from the upper basin states along with the Bureau of Reclamation. In total, they pooled a $15 million fund to compensate people throughout the Colorado River basin for using less water. The program targeted ranchers and farmers — who own the vast majority of water rights on the river — but municipalities could apply too.
It would be temporary and it would be voluntary — and every gallon of water saved would go not to any one state or city, but directly back to the river itself. “No one had done that before,” recalls Entsminger, “you’re investing money and no one’s name is on it.”
A grand experiment
The pilot program worked by soliciting proposals from individuals who volunteered to leave a portion of their water rights unused by letting the water run past their headgates and down their local section of river toward Lake Powell.
Applicants submitted a proposal describing their intended conservation activities, which were then reviewed by program administrators to ensure the proposals would actually leave more water in the Colorado River system.
For instance, low priority water rights — those dated after 1922 — were unlikely to yield much benefit since during dry years since junior water users must stop diverting to allow those with senior water rights their full claim amount.
In total, the four municipal water providers contributed $8 million to fund the program, with an additional $3 million from the Bureau of Reclamation. The fund was spread among projects in all seven Colorado River basin states and when the third year finishes up this fall, according to Michelle Garrison, who managed the program contracts for the Upper Colorado River Commission, it will have left an expected 21,590 acre-feet in the upper basin (and almost 98,000 acre-feet in the Lower Basin).
True, it is just a drop in the bucket for Lake Powell, which stores water from the Upper Basin of the Colorado River and had 15,020,378 acre-feet in it as of August 27, but it was the principle, and the experience, behind the System Conservation Program, that may prove most important.
“Nobody really knew how it would go,” said Cory Toye, the Wyoming water project director for Trout Unlimited, about the pilot program.
Would farmers and ranchers in the Upper Colorado River basin even agree to participate? For many of them, wary of the legacy of “water grabs” by big cities, accepting money from Las Vegas or Denver would be a form of betrayal to their communities and their culture.
Among Dennis Schroeder’s friends in the Pinedale, Wyo., ranching community there were fears that the program was actually a secret plot to take away ranchers’ water rights. And when Schroeder, who ranches on 355 acres of high desert, decided to participate, he heard from a few of them – fear-mongering mostly, he said, recalling one rancher’s warning: “Once you do that you’ll never get it back.”
Yet Schroeder understood there was a trade-off in participating — turning off his irrigation water early meant he lost out on some hay production — but when he did the math, the deal offered by the pilot program made sense to him. He participated for the first two years, receiving almost $15,000 each year for turning off his irrigation water in mid-July on 81 acres of land, letting 74 acre-feet of water remain in Pine Creek, a tributary of the Green River, which flows into the Colorado.
Entsminger knew they would have to tread carefully, that convincing Western ranchers and farmers that Las Vegas was “here to help” would not be easy. The program architects agreed that it would not look good if Lower Basin water managers were seen as paying for Upper Basin water, so the two basins used the funding separately.
Money from Denver Water and the Bureau of Reclamation would only fund projects in the Upper Basin while funding from the other municipalities along with the Bureau was reserved for projects in the Lower Basin.
“We were all sensitive,” Eklund said. “We didn’t want anyone to be able to point to money from Vegas or Phoenix going to fallow fields in the Upper Basin.”
To help navigate those cultural sensitivities Eklund and the other program architects also relied on partnerships with Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy. Their staff members would be the messengers, reaching out to irrigation districts and individual farmers with whom they had already worked hard to establish good working relationships.
For Jackson Ramsay, 25, a fifth-generation rancher from Rock Springs, Wyo., such a relationship with Trout Unlimited proved critical to his eventual support for the pilot program. When Trout Unlimited’s Walrath told Ramsay and his two brothers about the program, their first thought was, “What’s the catch?”
“We were kind of skeptical just because there are so many crazy things happening with government programs,” he told me one afternoon in June at a Starbucks in Rock Springs, before mentioning a rancher he knew who got in trouble with the Environmental Protection Agency for building a pond on his property.
Rock Springs is a resource town, surrounded by a honeycomb of old coalmines, the world’s biggest reserve of sodium carbonate, and the huge Jonah gas field. Most locals, said Ramsay, believe that land should be used for multiple purposes and are wary of environmental regulations that might hinder agriculture or extractive industries.
“We like coal, we like gas, we like oil, and we like ag,” Ramsay said. Green groups, he added, not so much.
Jackson and his brothers first met Walrath seven years ago.
“When Nick told us who he worked for,” Ramsay recalled, “we were kind of like, ‘Trout Unlimited — that sounds a lot like ‘Sierra Club.’ What do you guys want?’”
But after Walrath offered to replace a headgate that had washed out during a flood, making it better for fish – a project they could not afford on their own – the Ramsay brothers came around to working with a “green group.” Later, Trout Unlimited dug a pipeline to their irrigation ditch to protect it from future floods and the relationship was sealed.
When Walrath told them about the System Conservation Program, the Ramsays did some research and decided to apply because it made good financial sense. Ultimately, they didn’t qualify for the pilot program because their fields had not been in production for long enough, but Ramsay told me that they would if the opportunity to participate arose again.
As the pilot program matured, ranchers and farmers saw a unique opportunity: the ability to diversify their income by marketing their water rights in a way that hasn’t been available before.
The first year it ran, in 2015, the pilot program saw 15 applications. The second year, there were 32, and by last year, for the 2017 irrigation season, there were 47 applications.
“The third year we were shocked by the number of applicants,” said Garrison.
The numbers showed that with the right incentives, ranchers and farmers were much more receptive to helping cities avert a water crisis than any of the program architects had thought.
For hay and crops, the going rate was around $200 to $250 per acre-foot mostly for split-season irrigation projects — irrigating only at certain times, or stopping altogether on a certain date.
In Colorado, some participants used the program as an opportunity to transition into organic farming, which requires a three-year hiatus from pesticide spraying, while others fallowed certain fields for an entire season.
Near the town of Olathe, between Delta and Montrose, Colo., David Harold farms 700 acres of hay, sweet corn, and other vegetables.
He learned about the pilot program from a farmer-led coalition called No Chico Brush — named after the woody desert plants that covered vast swaths of land in southwestern Colorado before irrigated agriculture arrived in the late 1800s.
The group came together in 2013, a time when farmers in the Lower Gunnison River Basin worried that the ongoing drought might put an end to irrigated agriculture in their region and began researching water efficiency methods for farms.
“I had learned a lot about water rights and I didn’t feel threatened,” Harold said.
For Harold, the program made switching to drip irrigation much easier financially. In the past, he had struggled to improve his irrigation efficiency while growing crops at the same time, but participating in the pilot program provided him with some extra income.
Not everyone shared that perspective, however.
When other farmers learned Harold was signing up, several told him that they thought it was a terrible thing; that it was another form of “buy and dry”; that they would never do it. Others, he said — especially those farmers who were struggling financially — were more receptive.
Harold participated for one year, but with his new irrigation system in place, it did not make economic sense for him to continue participating. Still, he believes the pilot program was a worthwhile experiment in figuring out how to value water.
Water down the river
The program helped water managers figure out something essential as well, says Eklund. In an emergency drought scenario, when the usual conservation methods have been exhausted, when upstream reservoirs have been drained, and water levels in Lake Powell are still falling, what else can they do?
“How much water can we shove down the river in an emergency – how much money do we need to have ready to go?” Eklund said.
But to turn the pilot program into something permanent, Eklund and representatives from the other basin states have some big questions to resolve.
For instance, should farmers be compensated for the historical value of water used on their fields or the full potential usage guaranteed by their water right? What if someone like Harold had decided to plant alfalfa instead of sweet corn, which takes half as much water? How much should that contract be worth?
How can the program scale to include many participants? How can the contracting process for hundreds of irrigators be effectively managed, as it’s resource-intensive if done one-by-one as it was the past three years, when 56 contracts were produced and signed.
Water law, in some states, poses another hurdle. If farmers use less water than their allotment, they could risk losing some of their water rights.
In the future, Garrison hopes to see other states adopt legislation like Colorado has, where enrollment in approved conservation programs mean changes in water use cannot cause a farmer to lose a portion of his water right.
There is also the question of how to ensure the saved water actually, physically, gets to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, as downstream users are free to divert water in the river consistent with their water rights—whether it was destined for Lake Powell under the system conservation pilot program or not.
It’s what Garrison and others call the “shepherding problem.” In other words, how can the water be securely delivered, or shepherded, to Lake Powell without being diverted along the way?
But the hardest question to answer is also the one that proponents are reluctant to even ask: Is it even worth it?
As Gary Wockner, the director of the river conservation group Save the Colorado, pointed out, the same government agencies supporting the pilot program are also supporting new dam and diversion projects in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, that, if completed, would drain a further 250,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River system.
“If the fundamental premise is to stabilize Lake Powell, the last thing you’d want to do is permit new projects to take more water out of the river,” Wockner said. “You could spend millions leasing water from farmers and just barely break even.”
For Eklund, that apparent contradiction is part of a balancing act between the need to avoid future shortages on the Colorado River and protect Upper Basin states’ legal right to develop more water — if it’s available.
This year, heavy snows in the Rocky Mountains helped offset the years of persistent drought throughout the Colorado River Basin, but new research shows that rising temperatures will increase the frequency and severity of future droughts.
Just how much climate change will reduce the Colorado’s flow remains uncertain, but the pilot program at least made one thing clear: Ranchers and farmers are open, despite some negative social pressure, to take good money from metropolitan water providers and in exchange, leave some water in the river.
Last May, Botur left his ranch near Pinedale and traveled to Washington, D.C., along with several other ranchers who had participated in the pilot program, and Toye, from Trout Unlimited, to help secure more federal funding and support for the program’s future.
The trip was a whirlwind, with 12 meetings in two days, including one in Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s office where they were served Utah’s official state snack of Jell-O with marshmallows.
In two years, Botur had gone from skeptic to lobbyist. Faced with looming water shortages, it was better, he believed, to have a voluntary program that rewards people for doing what you want, instead of regulation forcing people to do something they don’t want.
Botur shut his water off even earlier than his contract required and other ranchers he knew did too. Water conservation was one value, but there were other values that the program supported and that Botur believed in— conservation of wildlife habitat, fisheries, and overall watershed health. Not to mention the value in avoiding future conflicts that will likely arise from population and climate conditions.
“It’s more than just money,” he said.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborated with High Country News on this story. HCN published the story on its website on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017.
A snowy winter in the Rocky Mountains helped Colorado River water users escape a shortage for the next year and likely for at least two more, federal water managers project, though a hot spring made the escape a narrow one.
The river’s reservoirs combined have gained 5 percent of their capacity in the last year, and now sit at 57 percent full. It means customers using Central Arizona Project water in the Phoenix and Tucson areas won’t lose deliveries next year and have just a 31 percent chance of losing some water in 2019 — a marked improvement from roughly even odds projected in recent years.
“We had a fairly decent runoff this year, which certainly helped us trend in the right direction,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Doug Hendrix said Tuesday.
Conservationists say the projections provide a nice reprieve but that the seven states on the river must use the time to plan and save more water and prevent future pain.
“I don’t think we really have time to wait for an official shortage declaration,” said Jeff Odefey, drinking-water-supply program director for the group American Rivers…
A 2007 agreement between Reclamation and the seven states said CAP customers, starting with farmers, would lose some of their river water in any year when the August projections show Lake Mead’s elevation dropping below 1,075 feet elevation on Jan. 1.
The lake would already be well below that level if not for conservation measures by the states and Mexico, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said in a statement Tuesday…
The government currently projects Lake Mead will end this year well above shortage level, at 1,083.46 feet. It was about 1,080 feet throughout on Tuesday, and should gain elevation as fall temperatures cool and reduce the demand for irrigation water, allowing more of the inflow to pool behind the dam…
The Green River, the biggest tributary to the Colorado, had a record snowpack in Wyoming last winter, Odefey said, while western Colorado was also above normal.
Warm weather then melted, evaporated and increased demand for water, reducing earlier predictions that Lake Mead would get a bigger boost…
The states and the federal government have already propped up the reservoir by paying for conservation and efficiency improvements with a goal of leaving water behind the dam instead of earmarking it for a particular use.
From 2012 through 2016, the states collectively saved 1.2 million acre-feet of water in the reservoir, said Jennifer Pitt, the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River program director.
That’s enough water to support a few million households, and it approaches the Central Arizona Project canal’s share of the river.
“It’s a great demonstration of the fact that water conservation can be done,” she said. “It makes me optimistic about the future.”
According to projections released Tuesday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the reservoir east of Las Vegas will have enough water in it on Jan. 1 to stave off a first-ever federal shortage declaration — and the mandatory water cuts for Nevada and Arizona that would come with it.
The lake is also on track to avoid a shortage in 2019, thanks to decreased demand downstream on the Colorado River and a larger-than-usual influx of water from Lake Powell upstream.
The extra water from Lake Powell is expected to raise Lake Mead’s surface by more than five feet by the end of the year.
The new federal projections come as officials in the United States and Mexico finish work on a new binational agreement aimed at stretching limited resources on the Colorado and keeping more water in Lake Mead.
Negotiators from the two countries, including representatives of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, have agreed on a range of water-sharing and water-saving initiatives, including voluntary cuts that Mexico could begin taking as soon as next year to prop up the overdrawn, drought-stricken river system.
The agreement also spells out how much Mexico would have to reduce its river use during a declared shortage and how much extra water the nation would get in the event of a surplus on the Colorado.
The new pact, known as Minute 323 to the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944, extends many of the provisions of an earlier treaty amendment approved in 2012 and set to expire at the end of this year. For example, Mexico will be able to keep storing some of its river allotment in Lake Mead, and U.S. water agencies will be able to continue to invest in infrastructure improvements south of the border in exchange for a portion of the saved water.
The water authority board is expected to vote Thursday to sign on to Minute 323 when the agreement is finalized next month.
“It’s a good deal for both countries,” Authority General Manager John Entsminger said.
The most important thing about the deal is the certainty it provides, Entsminger said. Water managers in both countries will now know what to expect should the river continue to shrink.
“It’s a big deal because the last thing you want is uncertainty when you get into a shortage condition,” he said.
The voluntary water cuts Mexico would take under the treaty deal hinge on a separate but related pact being negotiated by water officials in Nevada, Arizona and California.
The three states have agreed in principle on the so-called Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, under which Nevada, Arizona and, eventually, California would voluntarily leave some of their river water in Lake Mead when the surface of the reservoir falls to certain trigger points.
Entsminger said the multistate deal is on track for completion next year despite some public spats and lingering disagreements among water agencies in Arizona and California over how the voluntary cuts should be made in each state.
“I do believe it will happen,” he said…
The Las Vegas Valley relies on Lake Mead for 90 percent of its drinking water supply. The surface of the reservoir now sits at about 1,080 feet above sea level, roughly 130 feet lower than it was before the current drought began on the Colorado River in 2000…
Above-average flows in the Colorado River helped keep Lake Mead out of shortage for another year, but the real news is on the demand side.
Over the past year, Nevada, Arizona and California combined to use less than 7 million acre-feet of river water for the first time in 25 years.
Colby Pellegrino, Colorado River programs manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the decline in demand is proof that conservation efforts on the Colorado are making an impact.
The last time the three lower basin states combined to use less than 7 million acre-feet of river water was in 1992, when the region was home to roughly 7 million fewer people than it is now.
“We’ve successfully decoupled our economic prosperity from our water use,” Pellegrino said.
Mexican and American officials are finalizing a water-sharing deal for the Colorado River, and a newly released summary of the accord’s key points shows negotiators have agreed on a cooperative approach geared toward boosting reservoir levels and trying to stave off a severe shortage.
The document, which federal officials have circulated among water agencies, outlines a series of joint measures that build on the current 5-year agreement, which expires at the end of this year.
The new accord – titled Minute No. 323 to the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty – is expected to be signed sometime this fall, perhaps as early as September, and would remain in effect through 2026.
It would extend provisions in the current agreement, known as Minute 319, that specify reductions in water deliveries during a shortage, as well as increases in water deliveries during wet periods. The agreement also provides for Mexico to continue storing water in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, helping to boost the reservoir’s levels, which in the past few years have dropped to historic lows.
The accord would also establish a “Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan,” in which Mexico would join U.S. states in temporarily taking less water out of Lake Mead to reduce the risks of the reservoir reaching critical levels.
Those commitments by Mexico would only take effect if California, Arizona and Nevada finish their own Drought Contingency Plan, under which the states would forgo larger amounts of water than they’ve previously agreed to as the reservoir’s level declines.
“The Mexicans have demonstrated their interest in pursuing this, and it’s a clear benefit to the river to have more storage in Lake Mead,” said Bart Fisher, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California. He said the agreement would benefit water suppliers in California, Arizona and Nevada by giving them “certainty in case of shortage that Mexico will also share in the shortage.”
“All of those things put together, it’s a big win-win for both countries,” Fisher said…
Talks on the U.S.-Mexico agreement began during President Barack Obama’s administration and have continued with negotiating sessions held on both sides of the border by the International Boundary and Water Commission, which includes representatives of both governments. Representatives of U.S. states have also participated in the talks.
Even as political tensions have grown over Trump’s immigration policies and his vows to have Mexico foot the bill for a border wall, the Colorado River negotiations seem to have moved ahead relatively smoothly – pressed on by the approaching expiration of Minute 319.
“We largely concluded the framework for these negotiations a year ago,” Fisher said, “and the only fine-tuning has been the drought contingency portion, and cleaning up a little bit of inconsistent language.”
The agreement itself has not yet been publicly released. The summary provided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was presented Wednesday at a board meeting of the Imperial Irrigation District, which holds the biggest single entitlement to water from the river.
In a memo, IID officials said in order to implement the U.S. commitments under the deal, several agreements must first be completed between the states, water agencies and the Interior Department.
Those agreements include a U.S.-funded program to invest $31.5 million in water conservation projects in Mexico, including infrastructure upgrades such as concrete lining for leaky canals and other improvements to reduce water losses from distribution systems.
The federal government will provide $16.5 million, while the remaining $15 million will come from four water agencies, including IID, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.
Each of the water agencies will contribute a fourth of the funding. In return, they will receive a portion of the water freed up through conservation in Mexico.
The conservation projects are intended to generate a total of 229,000 acre-feet of water – enough to cover an area two-thirds the size of Los Angeles with a foot of water. Of that, 50,000 acre-feet will be used to give a boost to the Colorado River system and 70,000 acre-feet will be used to “satisfy the U.S. commitment to provide water for the environment.”
The accord lays out a cooperative strategy for Mexico and the U.S. states to jointly put the brakes on water use to reduce the risks of a crash in the system if the drought persists.
As of this week, Lake Mead stands at just 38 percent full, with its level at an elevation of nearly 1,080 feet, not far above the initial shortage threshold of 1,075 feet…
In April, the Bureau of Reclamation estimated the odds of Lake Mead hitting shortage levels in 2019 at 31 percent. A previous projection had put the odds at 50-50 before the winter brought a substantial snowpack, which was measured at 113 percent of average across the Colorado River basin.
The government’s summary of Minute 323 says the United States and Mexico “share a common vision on a clear need for continued and additional actions to reduce the risk of reaching critical reservoir elevations at Lake Mead.”
The document details how continued declines at the reservoir would trigger a rising scale of cutbacks in water deliveries, with Mexico contributing alongside the states – as long as the states have a similar plan in place.
By developing this type of plan to reduce water use effectively, the aim is to reduce risks of severe shortages threatening water deliveries and the generation of hydroelectricity, said Jennifer Pitt, who leads the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River project.
“It’s avoiding the shocks of sudden disruptions in water supply that is most important,” Pitt said. “But with these agreements, where the states and countries … commit together to a planned decrease in water use, I think the prospects for sustainable management increase greatly, and likely without severe economic impacts.”
The U.S.-Mexico deal includes a list of other measures, including establishing several joint working groups to focus on issues such managing the river’s salinity and optimizing flows to benefit the environment.
One of the groups, according to the government’s outline, will focus on studying the potential for desalinating seawater from the Sea of Cortez…
Under Minute 319, which was signed in 2012, the U.S. and Mexico agreed to an experiment: a one-time release of water into the parched delta that would resemble a natural flood.
That “pulse flow,” which gushed into the delta for eight weeks in 2014, temporarily reconnected the river with the Gulf of California, bringing a bloom of cottonwoods and willows along its path and attracting birds.
In Minute 323, there is no mention of plans for another “pulse flow.” This time, the focus is instead on securing a more steady flow of water to sustain wetlands south of the border. Goals include expanding restored habitat areas from about 1,000 acres to 4,300 acres.
Under the agreement, Mexico, the U.S., and nongovernmental organizations will team up to secure water for environmental purposes, plus $18 million for habitat restoration and monitoring.
“It seems like everybody’s in agreement on how to address these challenging issues,” said Tina Shields, IID’s water manager, who presented an overview of Minute 323 to the district’s board.
Managing the hardest working river is no easy task. Join us as we discuss the challenges, successes, and collaborations that have occurred to both harness and protect the bounty that is the Colorado River.
One of the most complex river systems in the country, the Colorado River, journeys 1,450 miles through seven states, two countries, and supports 36 million people. Its water forms the foundation for agriculture, recreation, industry, and municipalities, from Denver to Tijuana, and fuels a $1.4 trillion annual economy.
Managing the hardest working river is no easy task.
More than a century ago, populations across the west were booming. The seven states dependent on the Colorado River recognized the need to formally divide it, ensuring everyone received an appropriate amount of water. Ratified in 1922, the Colorado River Compact marked the beginning of how and why the Colorado River is managed as it is today. However, the Compact’s underlying analysis was based on one of the wettest 10-year periods in history; meaning that the Colorado River Compact is actually based on an allocation of water that isn’t there. And never will be there in any reliable way.
But the Compact is only one thread in a much larger story. Because the whole basin’s demand for water is higher than what it can supply, the Colorado River has become both one of the most stringently managed, as well as aggressively disputed, rivers in the world. There are numerous other compacts, federal laws, court decisions, decrees, contracts, and guidelines that have been developed since the 1922 compact that dictate the challenging management of the Colorado River; these are collectively known as the “Law of the River.”
The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River, said it will release 9 million acre-feet (11 billion cubic meters) from Lake Powell, sending it down the Colorado to Lake Mead, where it will be tapped by Arizona, California and Nevada…
…the planned release is above the annual average of 8.7 million acre-feet (10.7 billion cubic meters), and it should be enough to delay a widely expected shortage in Lake Mead, said Marlon Duke, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation.
A shortage would trigger cuts in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada, the first states to be hit under the multistate agreements and rules governing the Colorado River. That had been expected as soon as next year.
“It’s pushed that shortage likelihood out into the future,” Duke said, but it’s too early to say how far.
Melting snow is expected to raise the level of Lake Powell by about 50 feet (15.24 meters) by mid-July, but after the 9 million acre-feet (11 billion cubic meters) is released, the reservoir will be about 35 feet (10.67 meters) higher on Oct. 1 than it is now, he said.
The two reservoirs are part of the Colorado River system, which supplies water to about 40 million people and 6,300 square miles (16,317 sq. kilometers) of farmland in seven states and 20 Indian reservations. Mexico is also entitled to a share under a treaty.
A prolonged drought and rising demand for water have overtaxed the river. Some researchers say global warming is also affecting water flows.